My Three Year Expat Anniversary
In a few days, I will embark on my three year anniversary living in Costa Rica. I can honestly say that I am just as enamored with this country as I was when I first got here.
Living in Costa Rica has been the most rewarding and rich experience for myself and my children. We have all learned so much and grown in so many ways. I knew when we started this journey that living in another culture would be good for us, but words can't express how much I love the people of Costa Rica and how thankful I am for what they have taught me.
I'm not going to write about the things that I would have listed if I had written this article a year or two ago. Of course I love the exotic wildlife, the gorgeous beaches, magnificent sunsets, volcanoes, waterfalls and all the other amazing things this country has to offer. You already knew that.
Instead I'm going to write about some of the day to day, living as an expat things. Things that are totally Costa Rican. Some of them are things that at one time frustrated me, some of them are things that I just get a kick out of and some of them just refreshing changes from the culture that I use to live in.
Things in Costa Rica are very different from the States and that contrast is what I love most about it.
So without further ado, here is my list of 10 Things I Love About Living In Costa Rica.
Dance, dance, dance
#1: Grocery Shopping Is Like Going To A Club
This is so utterly strange and uncommon for anyone coming from the US, but no weekend grocery store trip in Costa Rica is complete without loud thumping dance music!
In the States, the grocery stores have that relaxing elevator style music but in Costa Rica - the choice of music at the grocery stores is anything but mellow.
If you ever find yourself in Costa Rica on the weekend and you are searching for a supermarket, just follow the music and keep an eye out for large speakers at the entrance. At first glance, you may think you are walking in to a bar or a day time disco - but no, you are at the grocery store.
A few times while shopping in the larger cities on the weekends, I have shopped at grocery stores that actually have a live DJ outside. (Really, it's true.)
For an older person, like my father, this drives him insane. He flat out refuses to do his shopping anytime on the weekends.
But for me, it's such a fascinating phenomenon that I just can't resist it.
I mean, who doesn't enjoy a little dancing while grocery shopping?
#2: Car Advertisers
In Costa Rica, businesses have come up with a clever way to advertise to each and every single person in the town.
This is accomplished by hiring someone to driver a car around town with a very large speaker tied to the roof. Quite possibly the same speakers used at the grocery stores on the weekends!
I've seen trucks with speakers in the back, small Geo Metro's with speakers almost as big as the car itself tied to the roof as well as moms with a mini van full of kids driving around with these speakers. I've seen these cars driving around through big cities as well as the smallest, rural towns.
This car with the speaker attached drives all around town while the speaker blasts out the company's advertisement message. This vehicle will not only circle though the busy streets of town but they also make sure to make their way up and down (and up and down) every residential street in the neighborhood.
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The first time I heard one of these cars go by and not understanding much Spanish, I thought some kind of first class crisis was going on.
I was sure that this had to be some kind of emergency message and that we were all in very big trouble.
"Tranquila, Gringa!" my neighbor said. "The local furniture store is just having a sale!"
#3: Long Bank Lines
If living in Costa Rica teaches you anything, it teaches you patience.
There is no such thing as instant satisfaction in Costa Rica. The culture here is on a slower pace and no one in Costa Rica is rushing around (or running towards death as I now call it) like people do back home in the States.
When needing to do business at a bank in Costa Rica, you will most likely experience the biggest lesson on patience in your lifetime.
The banks here work a lot like they do in the States. After going through the security at the front door (banks in Costa Rica have an armed guard at the door) and upon entering the building, you either stand in line to wait for the teller or you are given a ticket with a number on it and then you are asked to sit down to wait for your number to be called.
What is completely unlike the banks in the States is that Costa Rica bank tellers are the most relaxed workers you will ever see.
No matter how long the line, no matter how full the waiting area is - these tellers have not a care in the world.
They handle each and every transaction with the utmost of care. They take their time with each and every client, crossing every t and dotting each and every i and making sure to carefully stamp each piece of paperwork at least two or three times. (See #4)
More times then once, I have spent a good three hours waiting in line at the bank. For me, this seemed absolutely insane and yes, I found myself getting hungry and very impatient (typical North American).
However the locals, they do not seem to mind. They all have smiles on their faces, drinking the small styrofoam cups of coffee the bank provides for the customers in the lobby. They are not aggravated, they are not in a hurry. They make the most of this time and chat with the fellow bank patrons, laughing and just enjoying the moment, right there in the bank lobby.
And when their number is finally called, they greet the very relaxed bank teller with a friendly Buenos! or a Pura Vida!
After they handle their businesses, they walk out the door saying goodbye, hugging and kissing all the people they are leaving behind waiting in the bank lobby. And they do it with a huge smile on their face.
At first, I really didn't get it.
Didn't those people have things to do? Wouldn't they rather be somewhere else, doing almost anything else instead of sitting in a bank line?
But what I recently recognized is that long bank lines were not the problem. It was my expectation of how fast I thought my trip to the bank was supposed to go that got me upset. More then anything, it was my expectation which told me that things should happen a lot faster in a bank line.
And that may be true in the United States, but oh wait - I live in Costa Rica now!
This was a very big lesson for me and one that I'm very grateful for. Costa Rica has taught me how to live in the present moment and I'm learning to let go of my expectations on how things "should" be.
Spending a morning at the bank is now a favorite pastime of mine. I pour myself a little styrofoam cup of coffee, bring a book to read and enjoy my time - right there in the bank lobby.
When my number is called, I am able to genuinely smile at the teller, finish my banking and continue on with my day with a great big "pura vida" smile on my face.
#4 Paperwork and Stamps
Costa Ricans are quite enamored with paper work and they have this overwhelming need to stamp said paperwork.
Stamp it. And stamp it. And stamp it.
For even the simplest of transactions you will always be given some kind of paperwork and it will have at least three to four different colored stamps on it.
I don't know the secret meaning of these stamps or why they are so important. I don't know what official person is is going to check for all the right stamps on my hand written receipt for the $10 pair of flip flops I just bought from my neighborhood store. All I know is that for some reason it is very important here in Costa Rica that I receive them.
One stamp that I have a love/hate relationship with is my passport stamp. Every 90 days I have to leave the country of Costa Rica to get my visa renewed.
The first few trips out of the country were kind of fun - I thought "Oh great, a mandatory vacation every three months." but after the first year the buzz wore off.
These trips require a lot of patience. Crossing borders can be a slow process and so much paperwork. And so, so, so many stamps! The costs of these "mandatory vacations" also start to add up when you are taking trips to another country every three months.
Honestly, at this point I dread those trips. I'd much rather just stay here peacefully tucked away in my sweet spot in paradise and not have to jump borders in order to spend more time here.
Ironically, the best part of these trips has now become: the stamp.
My most favorite stamp in the world: the stamp on my passport that allows me to live 90 more days in Costa Rica.
#5 - Straws With All Beverages
This is something I find funny and at the same time really enjoy.
No matter where you are in Costa Rica, if you ever buy a beverage of any kind - besides a beer - you will be given a straw to drink it with.
This is of course common at restaurants but it also applies to any small pulperia (see #6) a grocery store, gas station and even when buying a pipa (young coconut) on the beach.
First the pipa man will pull an icy cold delicious young coconut out of his cooler for you. Next he will skillfully chop off the top of your coconut with his machete.
Before handing it to you, he will pull out a straw and pop it in to your coconut for you.
Thanks for the nice added touch, Costa Rica.
#6 - Pulperias
Pulperias are one of my most favorite things about living in Costa Rica.
A pulperia is a small "mom and pop" business that is owned by one of your immediate neighbors.
Most of the time, these little stores have been set up in a part of your neighbor's home - a front room of their house or a little addition that was built on the side of the house. Here your friendly neighborhood store owner will sell you a little bit of everything.
In a pulperia you can find basic food items like bags of rice and beans, some fresh produce, sometimes refrigerated goods like butter and milk, soda, beer as well as a wide variety of odds and ends like deodorant, lotion, nuts and bolts, pencils, baby blankets, oil for your car and sometimes even gasoline.
Each pulperia is different and most likely the pulperia will never have everything that you need.
But the customer service makes that OK.
The owners are typically an older couple and most likely, the sweetest human beings you will ever meet. They will be so happy when you come to patronize their store, spoiling your children with treats like chocolates and lollipops each time you visit.
Short on cash? "Take what you need and pay me mañana." the owner will say.
Sometimes, the pulperia owners offer other services, maybe they sell fresh milk from their cows and eggs from their chickens that are roaming around in the back yard.
Are you a weary traveler just passing through town? They may even rent you a room in their home to lay your head for the night.
What I love most about the concept of the pulperia is that it has reminded me how important it is to connect with your neighbors and support businesses in your community. The pulperia is at the heart of every neighborhood in Costa Rica and the sense of community and connection Costa Ricans have is something very special.
Even as a foreigner, each neighborhood I've lived in, my kids and I have been welcomed and treated so kindly by the locals. We have made wonderful friends and often times, felt like family with many of our neighbors.
Neighborly love is alive and well here in Costa Rica. It's something I never experienced on this scale back home in the States and another aspect of life in Costa Rica that I am so grateful for.
Costa Rica Pulperia
# 7 - Mañana
Although I didn't retain most of it, I did take two years of Spanish when I was in high school.
One thing I did remember was that the word mañana meant tomorrow in Spanish.
That may be true in other Spanish speaking countries but here in Costa Rica if someone tells you they will see you mañana or they will do something for you mañana - it does not mean tomorrow.
Mañana in Costa Rica means "not today".
If your mechanic tells you that your car will be ready mañana - that does not mean you can expect to stop by tomorrow to pick it up.
It simply means - I really don't know when your car will be fixed. All I can tell you is that it won't be ready today.
I now love this word because to me, it is just another example of "pura vida" and the Costa Rican way of life.
It reminds me: Relax, everything will work out. Things will get done. You will get there.
Just not today.
#8 - Street Dogs
I am a dog lover all the way around and so it's natural that I would have big time love for the street dogs of Costa Rica.
Back in the States, I was always terrified of stray dogs that seemed to have no owner running the streets of my town but living in Costa Rica has changed that. Street dogs are everywhere.
And not all of these "street dogs" are homeless dogs with no humans to call their own. Almost all dog owners in Costa Rica let their dogs roam the streets. Dogs here are not kept on leashes or tied up all the time. Dogs in Costa Rica (and us people too) have a lot of freedom and wide open spaces to run.
You will rarely ever encounter a dog that is mean or aggressive and I believe it's because they have all had the chance to be socialized. From time to time you will see dog fights but as far as dogs attacking people, that almost never happens.
The dogs are all friendly and will come right up to you and greet you. You will see them at the grocery store, hanging around the elementary school, running through the soccer field in town, all over the beaches and cruising through the main streets in town.
This is how we found our dog, Poco. About a week after we got to Costa Rica my kids and I were walking down the street and this sweet adorable puppy came up to us, licking the girls and wagging his little curly tail.
The girls (and I) went insane over him. His owner came out to tell us that he had an entire litter of puppies and he was a gift if we would give him a home.
It was love at first sight and he has been another wonderful part of our life in Costa Rica.
Learn more about a local community project called Homeless and Helpless helping care for and finding good homes for dogs in Costa Rica.
#9 - How To Make It Work
One of the biggest lessons I've learned while living in Costa Rica is the lesson on how to make it work.
Costa Ricans just seem to understand how to do that. If they can't find what they need, they make it. If they can't afford what they need, they repurpose, recycle and reuse.
I think in our North American culture we are so use to quick fixes or just going out to the store and buying something that we want and need. The need for imagination in our day to day activities is almost non existent because everything is so convenient. Imagination is something I didn't even realize I was missing until I moved here.
Living in Costa Rica, it's not that easy to find what you're looking for and even if you can find what you're looking for, it may take awhile to get it. At one time this seemed like a huge inconvenience but I've since learned to do as the locals do.
This has given me the opportunity to learn all sorts of talents and skills. I realized that with a little determination, I can do anything I put my mind to. Doing this has also sparked my creativity and I've found that I think differently then I did before.
Without my typical solution to problems, I've had to really think outside the box and learned to solve all sorts of problems for myself which is something I'm very thankful for.
Here are some examples of the ingenuity of Costa Rica and their "make it work" attitude in action.
I hope you get a chuckle out of them, I know I did.
#10 - Signs and Roads
My final thing I love about Costa Rica is driving and navigating around the country.
I lived here the first two and a half years without a car and recently I've just embarked on the adventure that is driving in Costa Rica!
They say a picture is worth a thousand words and these photographs perfect sum up the confusing and funny situation of driving in Costa Rica.
Enjoy & pura vida, amigos!